Strategy of tension
Forces supposedly opposed to an authoritarian takeover are helping to pave the way for it, writes Daniel Lazare
During the ‘years of lead’ in Italy, Germany and elsewhere, roughly 1968-82, talk spread of a “strategy of tension”, in which security agencies secretly encouraged violence on both the right and left as a means of paving the way for an authoritarian crackdown.
It was all very dark and mysterious. But now Donald Trump is engaging in such a strategy of his own, and this time the process could not be clearer. The goal is to send heavily militarised federal police into places like Portland, Oregon, and drive protestors into a frenzy. When they burn, smash and loot in response, the next step is to package the scenes into short and punchy campaign ads aimed at middle class suburbanites. Then come more cops, more protests and more ads claiming that either Democrats are backing the protests or are too chicken-hearted to come down on them the way they should.
If the ads can convince voters that events are spinning out of control, then they can convince them that tough measures are justified and that Trump is the man to do it. As a logician might put it, ‘Federal police: stepped-up street violence: scary campaign ads: surge of support for tough measures: more support for Trump: more federal police.’
Each new injection of camouflage-uniformed feds armed with pepper gas and rubber bullets kicks up such circular reasoning to a higher level. When you couple it with growing fears that a broken-down electoral system will result in “a constitutional implosion and an explosion of violence” in November, as Masha Gessen recently put it in The New Yorker, then it is no wonder why the mood in America is so jittery.1The greater the anarchy, the more Trump seems to benefit; and, the more he benefits, the more he seems to be pushing for a final showdown in the fall.
Conditions grew even more chaotic last weekend, as street fighting spread from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland, Omaha and Richmond, Virginia. With guns proliferating on both sides, shootings are growing more common. In Austin, Texas, a protestor approaching a car with an assault rifle in hand on Saturday night was shot and killed when someone inside fired back. In Louisville, Kentucky, three people were injured when a gun accidentally went off during a face-off between hundreds of heavily-armed black militia members and a far-right white militia known as the Three Percenters. The latter says its goal is “restoring the founding principles of our constitutional republic” and, curiously enough, the black militia, which calls itself the NFAC - the Not Fucking Around Coalition (!) - claims to be constitutionalist as well.
“Once it gets to that point where it looks like the government is non-responsive to the will of the people, the constitution says to [form a] militia to address the grievances of the people,” NFAC leader John Jay Fitzgerald Johnson - known to his followers as Grand Master Jay - told a Louisville TV station. “I didn’t write it,” he said. “They wrote it. We just abide by it.”2
In Aurora, Colorado, meanwhile, shots rang out, as a jeep raced through a crowd of protestors attempting to block a local highway, while in Weatherford, Texas, Black Lives Matter demonstrators chanting “No KKK, no racist USA” faced off against an unruly mob of cursing and shoving whites armed with confederate flags, AR-15s, and at least one sign reading “All Lives Matter”.3
All of which is typical of a country in which people think they cannot be free if they do not have heavy-duty military ordinance strapped to their chest and everyone claims loyalty to the same sacred text. Trump revels in such craziness, and rightwing media hounds love it too, which is why ultra-conservative radio hosts cannot stop railing away at “vicious, violent, hate-filled, anti-American protestors”, to quote Rush Limbaugh.
Meanwhile, the only thing Joe Biden has done in response is to issue an insipid 154-word statement accusing Trump of attempting “to sow chaos and division”. The statement went on: “Of course, the US government has the right and duty to protect federal property.” But it should do so “without trying to stoke the fires of division in this country”.4
Wow! You just can’t hold Biden back, can you?
There is an eight-letter word that neatly sums up America’s predicament, as global warming pushes temperatures above 35 degrees and crime rates soar too (Sunday July 26, saw eight shooting deaths in New York City alone). Covid-19 is out of control, with 1,079 deaths registered on July 27, the economy is faltering, while unemployment is officially at 11%, but, more realistically, is around 20%. Politically, events are at a complete dead end, which is why Trump is taking the initiative.
Two factors are at work. One is Trump himself - a man who has always been a good deal smarter than liberals have been willing to admit. Yes, he is an ignoramus who has probably never read an entire book in his life. But he has an instinctive feel for the dark underside of the American psyche - no doubt because he is part of it himself - and, like any good rightwing demagogue, he knows what makes lower-middle class Americans tick and why limousine liberals like Hillary Clinton fill them with absolute fury. Conceivably, Bernie Sanders could have sliced through such populist baloney by appealing to the real class interests of Trump supporters. But Biden, a man who once assured wealthy campaign contributors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president, is unable to move beyond meaningless bromides about a president’s duty to “bring us together instead of tear us apart”, to quote from his July 21 Portland statement. If Democrats think they can take back the White House on the basis of such clichés, they should think again - assuming, that is, they have any grey matter left with which to think at all.
The other factor is Black Lives Matter, which is plainly faltering. Like all too many leaderless, single-issue protest movements in recent years, BLM’s spectacular rise is giving way to a protracted and uncomfortable denouement, in which racial divisions worsen rather than improve. BLM’s rejection of the ‘All Lives Matter’ slogan is particularly inexplicable, since, rather than undermining the idea that black lives matter, it actually reinforces it. But, in an act of purest racial sectarianism, Alicia Garza, one of BLM’s three founders, assailed the “tired trope that we are all the same” in 2014, and called on activists to acknowledge instead that “non-black oppressed people in this country are both impacted by racism and domination, and simultaneously benefit from anti-black racism” (her emphasis).5
This is not some chance remarked that Garza issued on the run, but an essay that lays out BLM’s principles and beliefs - and one that can only cause sympathisers to shake their heads in dismay. An illegal central American immigrant on the run from the border police, a native American on an impoverished reservation, a white worker fired by Amazon for trying to organise a union - such people are all victims of capitalist oppression, and the idea that they benefit from anti-black racism is absurd. Worse, at a time of spiralling class conflict, such sentiments can only alienate non-black workers, which undoubtedly has something to do with why the right now seems to be gaining an edge.
BLM is also bourgeois. Along with other black-oriented activist groups, it was a recipient in 2016 of a $100 million grant from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies. Since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, according to one rightwing website at least, it has benefited from more corporate largesse in the form of donations from firms like Amazon, Microsoft, Airbnb, Unilever, Nabisco, Dropbox, Fitbit and Tinder.6 Political movements need money, needless to say, but BLM’s relentless wooing of corporate interests at a time of rising economic polarisation shows where its class loyalties lie. The idea of appealing to the working class to join in a common struggle against racism and police brutality is as alien to its way of thinking as it is to Biden’s.
When neo-confederates in small-town Texas embrace ‘All Lives Matter’, while BLM protestors reject it, it shows how confused the ideological scene has become and how Black Lives Matter protests are contributing to the growing disarray. And if disarray benefits anyone, it is an increasingly militant ultra-right.
This is why things are looking good for Trump. Forces supposedly opposed to an authoritarian takeover are helping to pave the way.
Joe Biden, ‘My statement on the Department of Homeland Security presence in Portland’, July 21 2020: medium.com/JoeBiden/my-statement-on-the-department-of-homeland-security-presence-in-portland-92006ab96bba.↩︎
A Garza, ‘A herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter movement’ Feminist Wire October 7 2014: thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2.↩︎